Designer pinpoints trends in green building
With all the changes afoot today, many from both inside and outside the green building movement may be wondering what is coming next. The following key trends and issues should inform the road ahead for green building.
More price signals and mandatory requirements
As the shift to a carbon economy materializes, it will create significant price signals that will reinforce increased green building adoption. Developers will see energy efficiency and carbon offset strategies as part of their overall investment strategy, which will make them financially competitive with other investment options. Carbon pricing in the form of a cap-and-trade approach will further drive innovations and increased investment in green energy, lowering prices and increasing choices.
Ordinances to require green building a development using the Leaderrship in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system or other standards has already been implemented by some cities. Other green building programs can be expected to follow. Green building will have an increasing role in revising energy code requirements to reach increased levels of sustainability.
Responding to greenwashing
With this explosion of sometimes conflicting ”green” information, options, and definitions, the marketplace has become confused. Simple, clear, recognizable, and credible labeling or certification programs can help to address marketplace confusion and inform consumer choice. However, some labels still conflict.
A diversity of tools in the marketplace with varying point-of-entry stringency may be healthy in that the net benefits of wider adoption of less rigorous standards may still be positive. However, clarity for consumers about exactly what it is they are buying or what the standard that government may sanction represents is crucial for the sake of clarity, transparency, and scrupulousness.
Renewing existing buildings
The fact that fewer new construction projects will be occurring in the foreseeable future allows us to focus more on existing buildings. Much of the country’s existing building stock is in need of upgrades to bring it in line with current standards of health and efficiency. With a suite of design tools, such as LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB), that can be exerted in this arena, more comprehensive building upgrades will occur than those that focus on energy or water alone.
Tenant improvements are another area that will maintain an ongoing focus in spite of the downturn. With increased competition in a soft office market, new leases will be signed and others renegotiated. With these changes comes a myriad of tenant improvement projects that can have significant environmental impact. For those renting class A office space, some believe that LEED is the new standard that defines that tier within the marketplace.
Growing opportunities for green-collar jobs
Putting people to work to repair aging buildings and infrastructure with a green focus holds great promise for rebuilding a greener, more resilient country. The term green-collar job has not yet been clearly defined, but it should also include manufacturing of green products and materials, research and development of the same, and green professional and trade skills related to the green economy.
One of the gaps that continues to exist in the green building industry is workforce development of skilled construction and maintenance workers to build and manage contemporary facilities. A building may be designed to be green, but if the contractor does not understand how to build it, progress can be stopped in its tracks. Partnerships with economic development programs and organizations can expand the focus of green building, making it more holistic and inclusive of the entire complex web of skills and relationships within the building industry.
Rebuilding failing infrastructure
Many public works projects, such as parks and infrastructure, have not received much attention in the green building dialogue, and tools like LEED do not currently apply to them. Long an ignored problem, the challenge of repairing our country’s ailing infrastructure is finally receiving focus. The failures that occur as the result of infrastructure collapse can be catastrophic, as evidenced by Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath or the chaos and disruption to electric service and price stability triggered in the United States by the rolling blackouts of 2001.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.2 trillion is needed for infrastructure repairs. Less monolithic and more distributed approaches to infrastructure should also be pursued as a part of the rebuilding efforts. Many green infrastructure solutions occur at the site level or tie together benefits from multiple utility areas, defying the way we traditionally plan and design infrastructure systems.
Investing in water-saving strategies
Climate change is likely to intensify water problems by raising temperatures and decreasing snowpack, and shortages of water are likely to become a pressing and catastrophic problem in the near term. Water shortages relate not only to drinking water but also to producing our food supply. The southwestern portion of the United States is rapidly drying up and is likely to experience a water crisis of epidemic proportions in the near future.
Regionally customized green building incentives will need to increasingly focus attention on water issues. Adaptive solutions, elimination of irrigation for purely ornamental landscapes, high-efficiency technologies, and, in particular, water reuse will be front and center. Green building programs have had stronger ties to energy utilities than to any other utility thus far. In the future, water utilities will increasingly see the value of investing in green building programs to help slow water demand and encourage innovative solutions.
Integrating food issues
Many public entities and NGOs now talk about “food security” in relationship to risks to food safety and supply based on massive food importation. The Slow Food and “eat local” movements have huge followings and have managed to focus more people on eating healthy, seasonal foods produced without chemicals. Green building programs can partner with local food organizations, community garden programs, community-supported agriculture, and farmer’s markets.
Pushing for local food policies and encouraging integration of urban agriculture into new or infill development via a partial redirection of federal agricultural subsidies are two possible areas of action. LEED for Neighborhood Development has a credit for “local food production,” a credit that should be added to the entire LEED tool suite.
Lucia Athens is Senior Sustainable Futures Strategist with CollinsWoerman of Seattle. This commentary was excerpted from the new Island Press book: “Building an Emerald City: A Guide to Creating Green Building Policies and Program.” For more info, see www.buildinganemeraldcity.com